The Mayor of Sneakerdom

A cautionary tale laced with obsession

A typical limited-edition pair is going for about $250—but pairs are selling for more than $800. Traders have come from as far away as Canada to schmooze and sell shoes.

The Mayor, as he later recalls, wasn't really looking for shoes this particular day—what could a 14-year-old offer him that he doesn't have already? But then he saw something he wanted: a rare pair of PlayStation Air Force 1s—shoes that were given out only to Sony and Nike employees and never appeared in stores. Farese says he couldn't believe the kid's $1,800 asking price, so he countered with $1,400. When the kid turned him down, Farese recalls, he found himself muttering, "I hope they lose their fingers."

Unlike at the previous Dunk Exchange, which was in March, a lot of boys seem to be having trouble selling their shoes. Alfredo Moses, a skinny ninth-grader from Bronx Science, and his friend, whom he met in elementary school, have a rare pair of OG Concords; original black-patent-leather-and-white Air Jordans from 1995; and neon-green Lucha Libres—an Air Force 1 pair designed by a Mexican graffiti crew and covered with images of wrestlers. But that rich loot was finding no takers. "I'm broke. He's broke," Moses says. A few hours later, they're still milling about and having no luck.

Farese is an unusual collector: He actually wears his shoes.
Gray Hamner
Farese is an unusual collector: He actually wears his shoes.
At the Crash Mansion, even the sneaker exchange has felt the effects of a recession.
At the Crash Mansion, even the sneaker exchange has felt the effects of a recession.

In another dark corner, five boys, led by 12-year-old Noah Drysdale, are trying to get their capitalist hustle on. The six middle-schoolers—some of them had met on a sneaker group on Facebook—had pooled together about 70 pairs of shoes.

A potential buyer approaches their table and holds up a shoe. He gives a nod, indicating that he's ready to hear a price. All eyes turn to Drysdale: "I'd do $120," he says confidently.

The customer makes another barely perceptible nod with his head. The sneakerheads understand that this means no, and the boy moves on to another table. "These freakin' people," Drysdale exclaims a little while later. "They come, and they don't buy shit." Drysdale's pals nod in agreement. A minute later, another boy approaches the booth and holds up a 2001 Cement Jordan—a "retro" shoe with an asphalt-like design on the rubber lining that Nike has been releasing every year since 1994.

"$250," Drysdale says.

"$225," the boy snaps back.

"$225. Fine," Drysdale replies. He takes the money without counting it.

Drysdale knows what he's doing. His business strategy? "Basically, we just want money." He spends hours online shopping for sneakers every week, but he proudly claims that he has never borrowed money from his parents to buy shoes. "I'm 12—I started when I was 10," he says. "Lately, I've been getting out of sneakers. But I'm starting to get back in."

Equally excited are Cheryl and her son, David, standing side by side with big grins on their faces after a long day. They had driven down from Connecticut and were celebrating David's big score.

"You should see him on YouTube—he talks about his collection," says the beaming mom. David's sneaker passion is teaching him valuable business skills, she says, and they now have the evidence. David, she explains, had been trying to buy Heineken Dunks: Nikes emblazoned with the beer brand's logo. "He tried three different times online," she says, shaking her head, "but they were fakes." The trip to the city has been worth it. The particular pair normally cost from $600 and $900. "But today, he got them for $450," she says. And that wasn't his only score. David is also carrying another treasure: the 2005 Tiffany's dunks, powder-blue shoes inlaid with fake diamonds. "You wanna see them?" asks David. He holds up the pair. "Everyone wants these, 'cause they come in a pink box."

Far less starry-eyed than David's mom, Amira Gobrial of Queens is leaning against a wall, a respectful but vigilant five feet away from her 14-year-old son. "It's a craze with these kids," Gobrial exclaims in a forceful whisper. "These kids live and breathe sneakers. They are always on the Internet searching for sneakers." And she's concerned: "The manufacturers hype these kids up to buy them. I don't understand. It wasn't like this when I was growing up. There are other things you can get involved in."

Like dealing crack and spending time in Rikers. That was once the life of 26-year-old Pedro Genao, a marketing exec at Shady Records and one of the organizers of the Dunk Exchange. He says he isn't concerned that an obsession with collecting an $800 pair of Dunks might not be healthy for kids as young as 12. "This whole thing got me off the street," says Genao.

THESE T-SHIRT WEARING young capitalists haven't escaped the recession. The Mayor says that some longtime sneakerheads have been forced to liquidate their collections in Internet fire sales. Still strictly a buyer, not a seller, the Mayor doesn't fault them for it: "If I gotta pay my rent, I'm gonna let a shoe go," he says. "If I gotta feed my family, I'm gonna sell a shoe."

But it's not easy for him to like those who re-sell shoes. Of his friends in the business, he says, "I have to separate the fact that I associate with them from the fact that they are re-sellers."

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